Monday, April 3, 2017

Long Time, No See!

How's everybody doing? It seems like only yesterday I was declaring that I wasn't going to let the blog start to languish again, I was going to commit myself to writing, etc., etc., etc....

Well, I did tell the truth; but I didn't do what I said I would. Make sense?

I had a strong January on the blog, and I was really happy with that. I was making up for lost time with The Beast Arises books, and dipping into some classic paperbacks.

Then school happened again. I'll be honest, I haven't been ready for the sheer volume of writing I've had to do this semester. So yes, I told the truth; I've been writing. Heck, I've been writing my ass off, but just not about books, which is something I love to do.

And, just like that, what little free time I had for blogging *poof* disappears.

Meaning, I get to read a lot more of:

And a lot less of:

.....and there was no rejoicing.

Well, enough complaining. I actually have some stuff to post, and then an announcement at the end.

First is a post/rant from MightyThorJRS, who is a damn fine reviewer (if you haven't read his stuff already), and a really cool dude. He touches on some of the - how should I call it? Blog fatigue? Reviewing fatigue? - we all feel from time to time. Trying to hurry to keep in line with the newest releases. Having the self-imposed pressure of what to write in a review interfere with your actually reading enjoyment. I know, no one asked us to do this. Just one of those weird kind of things. Anyway, check it out over here.

Secondly, I'm sure you are all familiar with The Combat Phase podcast, right? Well, in episode 188, recently released, Kenny over at TCR does what I've been dreaming about doing for the past few years - actually having a broadcast interview with Peter Fehervari! Seriously, you need to set aside an hour and forty minutes of your time to listen if you are as big a PF fan as I am. Because, finally, you get to hear him open up on these deep, psychological, wonderful, and terrifying stories he's been crafting over the past few years. So, seriously, give it a listen.

Listen to it here.

And, I must add, at the end, Peter Fehervari gives a quick shout out to the blog here; and, I know I'm a pretty emotional guy by nature, but it really did mean the world to me. More than a few times, I've really been on the verge of closing this blog down, and it's been him a few times that encouraged me to keep at it. Sometimes you need someone like that at certain times.

Alright, enough with the treacly waterworks. But honestly, I did cry a bit at that; see, I told you I'm an emotional mess.

On to the announcement.....well, see how I just talked about not quitting this blog? Well, actually, I am kind of quitting this blog.

I am joining up with my friend Rob, one of the admins over at the Warhammer: Artwork, Books, and Models Facebook group, to make a new review blog called:

Voxcasts From The Void

Please bookmark that and stop by. All of the Warhammer stuff I review going forward will be over there; hopefully, combined with his output, I can get a steadier flow of reviews up.

For the time being, any and all other titles I review I will put up here. I don't yet know how that will change over time. I'm honestly not ready to let go of this blog; there are too many good memories tied up in it.

So please, check out the new blog. The first post is up already - a review of The Last Son of Dorn (The Beast Arises #10).

Alright, hope to see you all here, there, or somewhere. Thanks as always for coming by.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Thing

The Thing by Alan Dean Foster. Originally published by Bantam Books, June 1982. Approx. 250 pages.

What is it that captivates us about movie novelizations? Is it the potential of "finding out what happens" before all the other rubes waiting for the release of a movie? Is it the promise of some additional character background detail; expository nuggets that perhaps were not truly fleshed out in the film? Growing up in the late 70's and early 80's, before Wikipedia and Director's Cuts, these were legitimate draws. Heck, a movie novelization was often the only way to "re-watch" a movie if your family didn't have a VCR yet.

It's fairly safe to say that the heyday of the movie novelization has passed. They still exist, but their cultural significance is somewhat diminished. Video game novelizations, on the other hand, seem to be enjoying a robust market/audience.

The myriad novelizations of my youth run the gamut in quality. There are gems, and there are ones that pretty much put the draft of the script into paragraph form.

One thing is for sure, however. No discussion of movie novelizations will go long without mention of Alan Dean Foster; the man regarded as the best and most prolific in the genre.

I have no idea how much information is given to an author in advance; how many specifics or details on characters, places, etc. I will say this, though: ADF always turns in consistently detailed, vibrant settings in his works.

With the movie novelization diatribe done (I think I am going to try and revisit some classic ones this year), let's look at ADF's novelization of The Thing.

Well, before I get started, I need to clarify...does anyone need a plot synopsis for this? I mean, is there anyone left who hasn't seen this science-fiction classic? If not, go do so now, then come back and we'll discuss how this novel stands as both an independent work and as a companion piece.

Plot similarities and differences:
The core structure of both the movie and the novel are the same for the most part (bearing in mind that this is the novelization of a movie that is a remake of a movie that was a novella adaptation). If I remember correctly, the novelization is drawn from the second draft of the movie script; so while there are structural similarities, the spiritual essence is different (seeing the evolution of script drafts to final film gives you a good perspective of just how talented a filmmaker Carpenter is).

Some scenes from the film are not present in the book: I am assuming that they spawned from the collaborative process between Carpenter and Bottin.

Also, there are scenes present in the book which did not make it to the final film: most notably the "dog chase" scene (no, not the opening scene with the helicopter pursuing the "dog-thing"), and the suicide of one of the team members (giving the novel a distinctly 80's "splatter scene"). The dog chase scene is a good one, to be sure, however it has the distinct feel of a traditional Hollywood action scene. I can see where this might have been omitted for either being too costly a scene, not necessary to the overall plot, or both.

Other than that, the ending is fairly different. The location of the finale takes place in a different part of the compound, and the final moments themselves, well, I think they end on a most "positive" (not necessarily upbeat) note. It is slightly open-ended, but with a kind of salvation in sight; unlike the nihilistic, bleakly ambiguous ending of the movie.

So, what information does a movie novelist usually get beforehand? I've seen some movie scripts, and I remember they might have a short paragraph description of each character as they are introduced. Is that all the novelists get? Do they get additional notes?

Well, to be honest, it's kind of difficult to reconcile the characters in the book to those in the movie. I mean, they weren't cast yet, so that's that. And it is a testimonial to what was some of the best ensemble acting that we've seen in cinematic history.

The problem is that these characters are hard to identify overall. And, again, I'm guessing that ADF didn't have a surplus of detail heading into this task.

I was going to gripe a bit about how lead character R.J. MacReady gets the thinnest characterization of all. He's fairly withdrawn, as in the movie. The best scenes in the book show hints at some mental trauma carried over from a stint in Vietnam. I was going to say how a little exposition would have enriched the depiction, but then I remembered - in the 80's, we all knew someone who had been messed up by the events in 'Nam. Usually, it was enough of an explanation just to say that someone had "seen some shit over there", and that was sufficient. Taking that into consideration, it remedies any complaints about the characterization.

My remaining complaint is that Childs is not the formidable figure that he is in the movie. Well, a lot of that has to do with the irrefutable coolness of Keith David, but a major part of the climax of the story is the "chess match" between MacReady and Childs. If they can't be seen as equals, it's all for naught.

Other than that, there are slight differences, but you can attach the faces from the movie, and it'll help a bit. Palmer is presented in the book as a more youthful grease monkey than the burned out stoner in the film, and the Clark we get makes you really appreciate all that Richard Masur put into his role.

Interestingly, the character of Windows is called "Sanders" here. This is funny, because it was originally supposed to be "Sanchez", and the character still speaks Spanish at points in the book.

The one aspect where the book trumps the movie. Rule One in ADF's novelization playbook: make the setting come alive. Go back and read any of his novelizations. They usually start with an in-depth description of the scenery. Bringing the area to life will help draw the reader in.

I wonder how much research, how many phone calls and interviews back in the pre-internet age he had to undergo to compile what comes off as a very accurate description of living and working at an Antarctic outpost. The tools and machinery, the day to day protocols involving everything; even seemingly mundane but actually critical details like dressing properly to step outside.

Remember, in the movie, the team members are stepping outside in shirts, hatless, etc. I get it; we need to see the actors to recognize them. However, they are dressing lighter than we do for Upstate New York winters, and it doesn't add up.

In the book, the full ramifications of the environment are recognized - the unforgiving, killing cold, the months of impending darkness as winter sets in, the feeling of total and utter isolation as no help can be reached. The movie plays well on the distrust of the team members; the book utilizes the isolation and claustrophobia to a better extent.

The creature:
Well, there's no way the book was winning this one. The effects that Rob Bottin brought to the table in the film version are incomparable. He is a genius in his field, and The Thing is his magnum opus (with his effects for Legend coming in second). Again, what tools ADF had to work with, we'll never know. He does indeed create a quite formidable creature for the book; playing off the terrifying screeches and bizarre transformation effects. Also, ADF demonstrates the formidable physical power of the Thing, further making the dog chase scene a helpful addition to the book.

As a comparison to the movie monster effects, it's a no-brainer. But, if you evaluate this as a creature that features in a book randomly picked off of a shelf, it's not too shabby.

Final thoughts:

I always knew this was going to be a tough one to give an unbiased review for. When you consider the movie, there are so many elements that elevate it to the masterpiece level - and you really can't rank them. You are nowhere without Carpenter's direction, Bottin's vision, the ensemble acting, Morricone's score (again with Carpenter), and Lancaster's script. That Foster could churn out a novelization of this caliber from what we assume are a script draft, some notes, and maybe some sketches is pretty amazing.

The Thing: the movie novelization works as a companion piece to the movie. Not exactly "separate but equal"; it is both similar and different in equal amounts. It excels as a novelization. It works as a standalone sci-fi/horror title, albeit one with fairly thin characterizations. It even surpasses Peter Watts' annoyingly pretentious short story "The Things".

If you are a huge fan of the movie, or a movie novelization fetishist, this title is a must have. Be aware, the costs in the secondary market run fairly high.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Plenty of covers abound for the novelization. This one is what it is. It's creepy, it's desolate, it works.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Watchers In Death

Watchers in Death by David Annandale. Book Nine in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published August, 2016. Approx. 191 pages.

The Beast Must Die ended with a brutal loss at Ullanor for the Imperium, as well as the loss of the Primarch Vulkan, who gave his life going toe to toe with a monstrous being most assumed to be the Beast himself. However, upon returning to Terra, Koorland is dismayed to still here the perennial chant of  "I Am Slaughter" being broadcast from the ork attack moon hovering over Terra.

A new approach is most definitely in order. Which brings us to Watchers in Death.

After conferring with Grand Master Vangorich, Koorland realizes that instead of massive frontal assaults against the orks, the Astartes should custom make 5 marine mixed-Chapter "kill teams" to conduct surgical strikes and precision kills. Never mind the fact that at the climax of The Beast Must Die, a kill-team of various Chapter Masters failed in their task of taking out the Beast, but I digress.

Koorland proposes the notion to the Council of High Lords, knowing full well that a) they will balk at the notion and oppose it vehemently, and b) he's going to do it anyway. As to why the High Lords are perfectly fine with planetary assault forces composed of mixed Chapters at full strength, but fear the notion of 5 member teams (I'm assuming they are worried that they might be utilized for purposes of assassination, at which point I'd remind them about Vangorich glaring over their shoulders).

So, there's a lot on the line going into this installment. There's the sense of urgency, and the palpable tension between Koorland and the High Lords. Ergo, this should be a slam dunk for Annandale, whose prior two installments were fairly strong.

The problem is, the finished product is anything but a slam dunk. While not bad in the least, Watchers in Death is, in areas, flat and mundane. It just shouldn't be this was. Let's have a look-see...

Much better here than in some previous installments. Koorland is still showing maturation and increased capability as a leader, but we aren't seeing enough of the rage, sorrow, and loss that must be huge drivers for him.

We get to see more of the High Lords in all of their conniving action again. I would implore writers of this series (well, the series is already over, but you know what I mean) to not lose focus of the importance of these characters, as their appearances have been a bit lean lately. Especially of interest in Ecclesiarch Mesring's further mental declination into madness in the light of his impending death.

Also enjoyed was the continued duel of one-upmanship between Inquisitorial representatives Wienand and Veritus. This is enhanced by one of the story's subplots - a covert mission to determine whether or not the secretive Sisters of Silence (they of the infamous Sister of Silence audiobook) still exist.

However, not all of the characters fare this well. Also, I need to mention; for all the positives that I mentioned, there still, in my opinion, needed to be a bit more. We should've seen more of the fallout of Koorland's Deathwatch mandate across the entire swathe of High Lords; how it affected each of their positions, spheres of power, and machinations. And, I really don't think that is asking too much, either - Watchers in Death is definitely one of the leaner tomes in the series. An extra five pages for character development would have worked absolute wonders.

Also, the members of the first Deathwatch units are, to be frank, a tad dull. First of all, there is a frustrating lack of diversity in the initial groups. They are populated primarily with Space Wolves, Dark Angels, Ultramarines, and Blood Angels. This same assortment is applied to all three of the original teams. There is nothing spectacular about these characters, either, and I had a hard time with both keeping up and caring to. I could tell you that the Space Wolf would be the growly one, and the Dark Angel would have "ie" in their name somewhere. There was a librarian in each team. That's about it. For the initial group that would set the standard for how this method would turn the tide in the battle against the Beast, it's a pretty boring batch.

One last note: it's nice to see an appearance by Annandale's best character from his entries, Galatea Haas, even if her job here is little more than a cameo.

Not much to say here. Koorland proposes the idea, the High Lords balk. The teams assemble; there is a cringe-worthy moment that explains why they choose to wear black. Then, they go on a few missions to show how effective this dynamic is. Plus, Wienand, Veritus, and Thane go on their SoS wild goose chase. It tells the story, to be sure, but that's it.

One of my traditional sticking points with Annandale. I believe him to be a meaningful writer; therefore, he only really writes well when there is something of import. When he was describing the Proletarian Crusade, there was a faith based charge on the line. The participants were getting swept up in the the ideology of their ultimately damned maneuver. And Annandale was able to invest the reader fully in that.

With standard action sequences, that engagement is not present. It ultimately devolves into familiar territory: boltguns crack, bones crunch, combatants die in scores, swathes, and droves. There are literal mountains of the dead.

Also, we want the Deathwatch teams to succeed, but the processes of their tasks become methodical.

What Annandale excels at is the aftermath(s). Whenever a Deathwatch team takes out an ork target, the fallout is usually quite amazing (won't go into too much detail because of spoilers).

All in all, Watchers in Death is a good entry. Should have been great, but it is definitely a step above average. I would like to commend Annandale for three strong entries in this series.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Ah yes, the extremely photogenic, if a bit Robert Pattinson-y, Deathwatch kill team member. This is a great picture. I only have a few things to mention here: first of all, there's no real rhyme or reason to that hairline. Second of all, the picture of the Marine himself is so well done (look at the original):

....that it's a real shame that the final cover had to cut the heavy bolter off midway through. I understand it's a formatting issue and all, but it throws off the overall effect. Still a great picture.

One last minor quibble: the mark of the Inquisition is in plain view on the pauldron; and, at this point, the Deathwatch are not yet under the Inquisition's purview. Nothing really damning about that; the picture still stands as a fantastic piece of art.

Cover Final Score:


Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beast Must Die

The Beast Must Die by Gav Thorpe. Book Eight in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series. Originally published July 2016. Approx. 163 pages.

It took me nearly half a year to finish this book, and now it has taken me almost a full month to compose the review. Roughly three drafts later, I'm going to try and condense this to a few paragraphs and let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I have to admit, I am feeling some real exasperation with this series as a whole. Were it not for the fact that the books were already sitting on my shelf, paid for and waiting to be opened, I might have given up already.

So, taking that into consideration, I want to put out here a reminder of some of the issues which I already have with the series as a whole. This way, if I teeter to complaining about them, it won't seem as solely an indictment of Mr. Thorpe.

Issues plaguing the series as a whole:

Wants to convey a aura of political intrigue, and manipulation. Final result is more in tune with bumbling and incompetence. Shady or not, the High Lords still preside over the day to day operations of an Empire that spans thousands of planets. They are not, you know, stupid.

Neither are Space Marines. These are genetically enhanced super soldiers, molding in the image of the original master of said Imperium. Again, super soldiers. In normal times, each individual Chapter may be tasked with the protection of an entire sector. They are not incompetent on strategic, tactical, or logistic levels. Please do not present them as such.

Another thing I want to mention before an in-depth analysis of the book is that this book is a bit light on plot. For his second entry series, like his first, Thorpe has opted to give us a book which is one huge battle set-piece. In The Emperor Expects, it was an epic naval battle. In The Beast Must Die, it is the assault on Ullanor. I have no problem with this ambitious move, but it also bears mentioning that the ancillary story lines see no advancement via this installment.

Also, we all know that tastes vary from reader to reader. With this in mind, I try to minimize criticisms based on style. For example, I've seen many cite Thorpe's flowery descriptions as a reason for not liking his work; however, I personally believe that that is when his work is at its most engaging. With that in mind, any complaints that I lodge will be when something just doesn't make sense.

Now, on to the review:

The Good:
No doubt about it, Gav Thorpe is a master architect of worlds. He has been instrumental in making the 40K universe what it is today; and that is predicated upon the sheer scope of his imagination. He brings the imaginative worlds of this shared universe to true life with his prose.

Also rendered with vivid detail are the diverse assets of all the factions in play here: the Adeptus Astartes, the Imperial Guard, the Adeptus Mechanicus, and, the chaotically jury-rigged machinery of the orks themselves.

I also give high marks (for the most part) for Thorpe's action sequences. When your choice is to make over 90% of your book one continuous action scene, the fact that you are maintaining a roughly 80% efficiency rating at it is still fairly impressive. Again, as mentioned before, it goes to my personal taste. I like when Thorpe uses vividly descriptive and comparative terms to bring his scenes to life and imbue them with a true sense of scale. I personally do not like Warhammer fiction that reads like "And then the Fist Exemplar, wearing Mark III armor, fired an incendiary round from his something-pattern bolter, hitting the 30 meter tall gargant." But, I'm sure some people do.

What doesn't work so well for the action scenes is that we don't have enough "eyes on the ground"; in my opinion, it would've worked to have a few more characters, giving us a few more viewpoints, and really invested us in what was at stake here. However, speaking of characters....

The Bad:
Yeah, characters and dialogue just aren't Gav's strong suit. His characters all kind of go along with the emotional current of the narrative, rather than being the forces driving it. There is nothing added to these characters in this book. (although I must say, there are epigraphs for some chapters which take snippets of Vulkan's inner monologue, and they are fantastically done)

In fact, there are some scenes which are just kind of painful. Which leads us to....

The Ugly:
Be forewarned -  there may be minor spoilers and major griping ahead.

A note before the rant begins: one thing I did not mention in the review for The Hunt For Vulkan (in order to minimize spoilers) is that Vulkan is indeed found. It is a moment of excellence for Annandale, because he truly conveys the sheer awe that even a super human like an Astartes would feel when a true living legend appears before them. It was truly an awe-inspiring moment.

Fast forward to preparations for the assault on Ullanor, and we have Koorland stomping his foot like a petulant child and shouting "I am Slaughter!" over and over at Vulkan. That was the moment that led me to put the book down for a few months.

Then, we have the issues with strategy, as I mentioned before. This massive assault force reaches Ullanor, and SPOILER!!!! the orks are utilizing pretty much the same technique that they employed to dismantle the Proletarian Crusade in seconds (just lay low for a while). And the Imperium forces fall completely for it. I am assuming the preparations and transit to Ullanor took a few months; and, in that time, the combined strategic minds of the Space Marines, Imperial Guard, and Adeptus Mechanicus could not come up with a solid attack plan as well as a half-dozen contingency plans? Really? In all honesty, it takes quite a bit to rustle my jimmies, but that left me quite rustled.

In closing:
I don't want to get too caught up in the complaints. I want to reinforce that for all of its flaws, there is a lot of good in The Beast Must Die. Read it for the grand action sequences, including a rousing climactic battle.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

As always, a fantastic cover. Why they chose the Adeptus Mechanicus for this installment, I have no idea. They figure in the book, they are written very well in the book, and I truly wish that they had featured more in the book.

Cover Final Score:


Friday, November 11, 2016

HachiSnax Interviews: The Second Peter Fehervari Interview!!!

A little over a year and a half ago, Peter Fehervari, who in my opinion is the best author over at the Black Library, in addition to being a real great person (and very supportive to the blog), agreed to do an interview. The first few questions were billed as a "Part I", however, due to some scheduling issues and workloads, Part II never came to be. Now, I am ecstatic to announce a second interview with Mr. Fehervari.

There's only a few questions this time; but I think you can agree, the answers he provides are insightful, thought-provoking, and mind-blowing. It is a rare opportunity to see the workings and plannings of such an intelligent and deep author. 

Well, read on, and I hope you enjoy. I'm sure you will. Please take the time to leave some comments on the way out.

Cheers, Hach.

Hi Peter-
Thank you for agreeing to do this second interview with HachiSnax Reviews. It’s hard to believe that it has been close to a year and a half since the last installment.

At the time of the last interview, I had framed a good deal of questions around your (then) upcoming Adeptus Mechanicus tie-in short story, Vanguard. However, since then, you’ve had a few more offerings come out through Black Library. There was another tie-in short story, this one for the Deathwatch series, titled The Walker In Fire, as well as the dizzyingly brilliant novella Fire & Ice, which appeared in the Shas’O collection (see reviews for Vanguard, Walker In Fire, and Fire & Ice).

Several of your stories feature the Tau in significant roles. I have to say, of all the Black Library authors, I believe your take on them is the most believable. Instead of just focusing on their wide array of armament, you infused them with a tangible air of legitimacy by delving into their philosophies. The way you presented the “Greater Good” is in a way one would imagine it to play out in real life – equal parts appealing and utterly terrifying. As a gamer, and as an author, what was your own history with the blueskins; and, going from that, how did you approach bringing them so effectively to life?

P.F.- I’ve never fielded a tau army on the table-top, however the faction has intrigued me since its first appearance. I vividly recall going into my local Games Workshop (sadly long gone and much missed) when the original tau codex and models were released and being struck by the buzz surrounding them. On fire with enthusiasm, the manager told me these were ‘the good guys’ of 40K – a rational, reasonable, all-embracing culture that was the galaxy’s best hope. Well, that certainly intrigued me. Unequivocal good guys in a world that was all shades of grey running through to deepest black? Really?

If I’m honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on the angular battle suits and overall aesthetic of this new race at the time, but I was curious enough to buy the codex. While I can’t remember the precise details of that early version I know it won me over to their side philosophically. Though this young race was almost certainly out of its depth in a reality where superstition, paranoia – arguably even xenophobia – made sense, I respected its idealism, doomed or otherwise. Since all roads in the Dark Millennium would likely end in ruin I figured I’d rather walk one that somewhat reflected my own view of right and wrong. The tau and I were both young and idealistic back then, so we hit it off!

Bearing this in mind, I’ve found it interesting that many readers feel my take on the Tau Empire is cynical, even condemnatory, because that was never my intention. For the most part I believe the tau are sincere in their intentions towards other species, genuinely recognising that sentient (and sane) civilisations are stronger if they stand together. The Greater Good isn’t just for those with blue skin and hooves – it’s a genuine, all-embracing philosophy that might just work in a broken galaxy.

However later codices and occasionally other sources (particularly Spurrier’s ideas in ‘Xenology’) added threads of shadow to the bright tapestry of these idealists. Considering their fragmented, self-destructive past, I’d argue there’s a potential darkness in the tau that can be supressed, but never entirely excised. This aspect can be played up or down depending on one’s personal interpretation of the ‘facts’. For example, the pheromone control exerted by the Ethereal caste is unsettling because it potentially denies other castes the freedom to choose the Greater Good, which would arguably undermine its ethical foundation. However, there’s plenty of wriggle room here because it’s not clear how pervasive and necessary such control is. One could argue that the pheromones (if they truly exist) are merely a support structure for tau society rather than its basis. As a writer I find such grey areas compelling, hence my fascination with the tau grew as their lore became more textured and their flaws showed through.

Nevertheless, given the countless predatory factions pressing in from all sides (and I include the Imperium here), I don’t regard the tau as particularly dark. Authoritarian? Almost certainly. Ruthless? Yes, occasionally, but rarely spiteful or malevolent. Thus, I’ve striven to present them as analytical, precise and measured in their intent and actions, but with a rigidly controlled, passionate core.

The embittered Fire Warrior, Jhi’kaara exemplifies this tension when it’s pushed to the limit. She is a broken reflection of the tau ideal, twisted out of shape by ambition and disillusionment. This makes her an outcast, more in tune with the toxic jungles of Phaedra than her own kind, yet even she never willingly betrays the Greater Good. Her discipline and respect for social order are too ingrained.

Which brings me to the Water caste ambassador, O’Seishin, who presided over the Phaedran war. Despite his incipient corruption (again rooted in personal ambition), his plan was arguably sound, saving many more lives (particularly tau lives) than it cost. It was harshly utilitarian, but undeniably effective. Rational. Hence the novel’s protagonist was faced with a murky, corrosive moral choice at the novel’s conclusion, which underlined the story’s main theme – complex questions rarely have absolute answers. Which reflects my view on the tau themselves.

I’ll conclude by saying the Tau Empire remains the faction I’d sign up with if I lived in the Dark Millennium and was offered a choice. In fact, given the chance, I’d call the tau in to sort things out in the here and now!

H.S.- Over the course of your Black Library stories, you have given your readers some truly memorable Imperial Guard (sorry, Astra Militarum) units. Take the Verzanate Konquistadores, the Lethean Penitents, and the Iwujii Sharks, to name a few. In your fashion, you have also provided detailed and comprehensive backstories for these units. However, of all the Guard companies you’ve created, the Arkan Confederates are forever cemented in the minds of readers.

Now, it is no new thing for Warhammer 40K Guard units to draw design inspirations from historical or culturally-influenced military units. Reception to drawing inspiration from Civil War soldiers seemed to run the gamut from readers thinking it was great, to some thinking it was odd, and others, silly. The thing is, once you picked them, the presentation was amazingly detailed. It wasn’t just grey uniforms, kepi caps, and a pseudo-Southern dialect. There were references to obscure Civil War era unit types, and authentic representations of social classes (from the upper crust plantation owners to the holy book thumping fundamentalists) and dialect.

My question is, was your inspiration in using that Confederate template born from picking well-known “rebels” and diving into insane amounts of research? Did it spawn from an affinity for that segment of military history? Or was it another clever puzzle piece (i.e.- Civil War – Blue vs. Grey. Blueskins vs. Greybacks)?

P.F.- My starting point for the lead regiment in ‘Fire Caste’ was that it should be strikingly ill-suited to the conditions on Phaedra. I’ve already mentioned that Herzog’s film, ‘Aguirre, Wrath of God’ was an aesthetic inspiration for the setting – the images of conquistadors hauling cannons through a steaming rainforest were unforgettable and I wanted to capture that sense of absurd striving and misery while going my own way and amping things up for 40K. Secondly, I wanted to push the idea of the old and the new clashing, both technologically and ideologically, so a ‘period’ regiment was appealing as a foil for the tau.

I’ve always been fascinated by the American Civil War – the intensity, the appalling internecine waste of lives, the distinctive and striking uniforms, but above all, the irreconcilable clash of tradition and new ideas – so a Civil War regiment seemed a good template to build upon. I’m far from an expert, but I did my research, which is where I discovered colourful units types like the Zouaves, though I took them in pretty eccentric directions. Other than Colonel Cutler, who is obviously loosely inspired by George Custer, none of the characters are based on historical figures, but many of the names were derived from old regimental lists (though I discovered that a fellow BL writer had apparently been there long before me and snapped up some of the best ones!)

 I’m aware that some people felt the Arkhan Confederates were too literal a take on their real world counterparts, but I feel this criticism was overcooked given how established 40K lore also draws so deeply from human history. In hindsight, perhaps I’d tone down some cultural aspects - the language perhaps - though I tried hard to make it authentic rather than clich├ęd, however I’m not convinced the story would be better for such changes. Besides, I’d argue that the Arkhan’s steampunk slant already goes a long way towards distinguishing them from the reality. Furthermore, in my alternate history, the Confederates (who reluctantly sided with the Imperium) were the victors, so the more conservative side won the war. This was probably just as well for Providence because it would have been steamrollered otherwise, but there’s a pervading sense throughout the book that it was a hollow victory. Many of the Confederates feel like traitors to their own people and have little affinity for the Imperium, let alone the Imperial Cult. They are lost – out of place, time, culture and increasingly, mind. The potential this offered for storytelling was always the most important thing for me.

I must confess that the grey and the blue parallel was pure luck – or serendipity - but it made me very happy when I noticed it.

H.S.- In evaluating your three last offerings, you can plainly see that with Vanguard and The Walker In Fire, there were certain parameters you had to follow in keeping in line with the tie-in story arc/product release. In both of those stories, you also found your way to integrate elements from your twisted, interconnected story threads. However, there is something different about the tone of Fire & Ice. In that novella, there is an almost palpable sense of an author with unbridled control over the story he is crafting; and the end result crackles with intensity. I know that sounds a bit over the top, but that story is immensely powerful. It may not have the haunting, despair-laden overtones of Fire Caste, but it is a solid, strong work.

Not to make the question too broad, but what can you tell us about the “making of” Fire & Ice? What was your original intent with this novella? Did you have any concerns with how the story would be received by readers, being as though it is so fundamentally different from the other offerings in the anthology in both mechanics and tone? And, what was your approach for getting inside the head of the enigmatic figure who may or may not be Farsight?

P.F.- While ‘Vanguard’ is a more direct follow up to ‘Fire Caste’, ‘Fire and Ice’ is closer to that novel’s spirit. Once again the ‘journey into darkness’ is at its heart, but more focused, with fewer action set pieces and a tighter focus on dialogue. Though it is a puzzle without a clear-cut solution its pieces had to make sense and work on multiple levels.

For example, setting the bulk of the story on a train served several purposes. Firstly it struck me as a fresh and unusual environment for a 40K tale. Secondly, it offered a claustrophobic, almost inescapable trap where the horror, both physical and psychological, could play out. But thirdly, I was attracted to the set-up emotionally. This trap, where the roles of captor and captive, hunter and hunted blur, is quite literally on rails, remorselessly carrying our protagonist towards judgment as his tormentors push him on a parallel, arguably more dangerous, journey within himself. This synergy of the aesthetic, the practical and the emotional is what I aspire to when thrashing out a story's location, plot and characters. Which brings me to your question about Farsight. 

Last time round I talked about the sense of responsibility I feel when writing within the 40K mythos - the thrill and the fear. Well, I’ve never felt it so keenly as I did with ‘Fire and Ice’ because this was the first time I was entrusted with one of the lore’s established figures. 

Being drawn to outcasts, iconoclasts and rebels, I was fascinated by Farsight from those first dark paragraphs in the codex, so I jumped at the opportunity to get to know him better. This was before the release of his supplement, so he was still a profoundly enigmatic figure and my brief was to keep him that way. I could hint at his motives and nature, but not pin anything down. Whatever depth and detail I brought to him could not be at the expense of his mystery. After some initial consternation I realized this resonated with my own instincts about the character – after-all it was his mystery that had hooked me in the first place.

I loved the notion that Farsight’s true nature, like the identity of the infamous missing legions, belonged to the imagination of the fans, without ‘official’ answers to constrain it. To some he might be an ideological renegade, to others an opportunist pirate or even a nascent champion of Chaos. My place was to offer evidence for all these theories, but never hard proof, which set the story's tone of subterfuge and shadow play – and indeed the whole puzzle-box structure. At journey's end we can't even be certain whether the Prisoner was Farsight at all. Not even I, the writer, can really know in this case.

To do this idea justice it was imperative never to go directly into the Prisoner's head. His thoughts had to be inviolate. Like his interrogator, all we have to go on is what we see and hear. We are observers, never truly confidantes in this game. 

So what can we be sure of? 

Regardless of his motives, I knew the Prisoner had to be impressive. Without a battle suit or a loyal cadre of followers, he had to be dangerous through his sheer presence alone. The story's title refers to the duality of his psyche, which encompasses both a razor-sharp intellect and a ferocious passion (the inherent tension of the tau amplified to the limit). Each aspect is in thrall to the other, but always threatening to break free and shatter the balance. To my mind, this is the alloy from which a great leader is forged – a warrior lord who has mastered both the detached strategy of war and the up-close savagery of battle. As to whether he’s fighting for good or evil… that’s another question, and not one I wanted to answer about the Prisoner. There’s plenty of evidence on offer, but how you interpret it… well that’s up to you. The answer doesn’t belong to me.

H.S.- Finally, your new novel focuses on the machinations of a Genestealer cult infestation. What drew you to this faction and what was your approach to their portrayal? How did you combine older canon, newer materials, and your own personal touch into making a "religion" that is both simultaneously hideous and inhuman, yet also sympathetic, believable, and, in a perverted sense, beautiful?

P.F.- There’s a grungy bio-punk aesthetic to the Genestealer cults that appealed to me from their first appearance in White Dwarf, back when they were riding around in limousines and making pacts with Chaos like some kind of xenos-tainted mafia. They embodied the rot devouring the Imperium from within, wielding doubt and discontent to subvert the everymen (and women) of humanity from the shadows. The insidiousness – the dishonesty – of their secret war made them more unnerving than the xenos and traitor hordes assaulting the Imperium’s frontlines. And then there was their utterly nauseating modus operandi - a corruption of mind and body that was unequivocally sexual in nature. They were repellent, but fascinating with it, which made them a compelling faction to write about.

When I received the brief for the novel I had some lengthy and wonderfully bizarre discussions with my editor about how far the story could – and should – go into the sexual aspect of the cult. Sex is intrinsic to a Genestealer infestation so glossing over it completely would have done the concept a disservice, but equally we had to be mindful of the readership’s wide age range. Hopefully the balance we struck, with the sexual aspect restricted to suggestion and character reactions, conveyed the horror without ever being crude or exploitative.

Actually, while we’re on this subject I’d like to clarify one…technical…point about hybrid reproduction: my understanding is that first and second generation hybrids infect humans with an ovipositor sting, much like Purestrain Genestealers. Only fourth (and possibly third) generation hybrids are sufficiently humanoid to utilize more conventional techniques of reproduction. While the codex isn’t particularly specific on this matter I pressed for an answer and this is the interpretation we agreed on. Personally I think it’s quite disturbing enough and entirely logical.

So to be absolutely clear about this and end some of the more febrile speculation I’ve read on some forums: the fallen Battle Sister, Etelka, was stung by the cult Patriarch. There was no bizarre monster sex involved, thanks.

Moving on to the character of the cult, I wanted its philosophy and aesthetics to express the biology at its heart, but in an idealized way, hence the imagery of an ever-growing spiral and the promises of ‘cosmic kinship’. From humble human converts to the Patriarch himself, whether it is instinct, intellect or passion that drives them, every member of the sect sincerely believes the infestation is a force for good. How could it be otherwise when it heals, unites and enlightens those it embraces? Within the Great Spiral the doubts and deceptions of individuality disappear and the three facets of existence - body, mind and soul – become harmonious.

The daemonic entity imprisoned beneath the Spires and held in check by the Patriarch reinforces the logic of the cult’s creed: in a malevolent galaxy only absolute harmony can prevail. This is both an inversion of the classic Rogue Trader phrase (‘In a mad galaxy only madmen prosper’) and a more extreme expression of a utilitarian philosophy like the Greater Good. Crucially the creed makes a lot of sense, which is where its beauty stems from.

Of course, we know this is all a lie perpetrated upon the cultists by their own biology, which has doomed them from the start. The Great Spiral is a trap, offering not cosmic transcendence, but oblivion in the jaws, metaphorical or otherwise, of a tyranid fleet when the Hive Mind finally senses them. That twisted tragedy is what I find most compelling about the faction, not least because it rings so true. As the lost Arkan captain, Ambrose Templeton wrote in the preface to his unfinished epic: Beware of easy answers and those who proclaim them, for what glitters is rarely gold and those who flaunt it are never true gods.

Wow. Amazing stuff there. Thanks again, Peter! A reminder, Peter's two Genestealer Cults stories, the novel Genestealer Cults, and the wicked short story Cast a Hungry Shadow (which features Chaos vs. Genestealer cult gang war and a ferocious, Mad Max: Fury Road inspired vehicle action setpiece), are out now. Grab your copies today!

And don't forget, you can go back and read the first interview with Peter Fehervari here.

Legal Disclaimer: The views and/or opinions expressed in this interview and in all articles of this blog are entirely the view of the author and are NOT in any way representative of Games Workshop PLC. All names, insignias, illustrations, et al. are the property, copyright, and/or trademark of Games Workshop Ltd, PLC. All names, titles, and illustrations used without permission, with no challenge to copyright/trademark status intended. All rights reserved by the proper owners.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Cast A Hungry Shadow

Cast A Hungry Shadow by Fehervari. A Warhammer 40,000 Genestealer Cults Story, originally published September 2016. Approx. 31 pages.

Back in September there was much rejoicing as we were graced with not only a full-length novel (albeit on the short side) from personal favorite Peter Fehervari based upon the newly released Genestealer Cults Codex, but we also got a tie-in short story as well.

The events chronicled in the cryptically named Cast a Hungry Shadow transpire between the explosive prologue of Genestealer Cults (during which the former stewards of the soot-ridden hellhole of Redemption, the Sisters of Battle, met their demise), and the rest of the novel, that brilliant chess match between the adherents of the Spiral Dawn and the Guard members of the Vassago Black Flags.

However, instead of the cultists vs. the Guard, what we have in Shadow is a different kind of gang war; one between the Spiral Dawn cultists (furthering their foothold on the planet), and members of an entirely different cult: the Chaos worshipers of the Scorched Creed. The devotees of the Scorched Creed abide by the calling of the teeming currents of Chaos which roil madly below the spires of Redemption, maintaining its liquidity; maintaining its....lie. Is the planet Redemption a lie? Or is redemption simply a lie? Both?

The cultists of the Scorched Creed are led by a fearsome brute named Gharth; a giant, hulking Chaos puritan who lost his eyes and gained true sight. On the side of the Spiral Dawn stands Aziah, a Chosen Claw, bodyguard of the Spiral Father, and trusted son of the glorious Saint Etelka, better known as the Sororita who betrayed her kin. What brings these two factions on a (literal) collision course is a presence of power so potent, so useful, that it simply cannot be ignored.

Said source of power is a female psyker; one of such latent potency that it boggles the mind. It is also an amount strong enough to tip the scales of dominance in favor of the faction which retains her first; making it no shock that Gharth and Aziah a jockeying so voraciously to earn her favor.

From that framework, Fehervari delivers what may be his darkest story yet, with some of the most brutal action I've witnessed anywhere in the 40K universe. While it doesn't have as many links and Easter Eggs tied to other "Dark Coil" tales, what it does showcase is PF's immense creative ability in crafting unique characters and factions.

We already saw in Genestealer Cults the legitimacy and authenticity with which this new take on an old faction was presented (which reminds me; I'd recommend that one reads GC before Cast a Hungry Shadow). Aziah makes a fine, sympathetic protagonist here; especially this being a story bereft of "normal" humans for us to root for. He is a devout, true believer, but also prone to rage and fury issues.

But the real show-stealers here are the members of the Scorched Creed. Lifelong slaves to the slab-mines of Redemption, they find purpose and gifts of the flesh through their abominable creed. And yet, as Fehervari demonstrated in the belief system presented in GC, there is a seeming logic, dare I say a validity, to their belief? Gharth, the Blind Pilgrim himself, is so set in his way that until he was named and given a specific background I could have sworn that the burning shell of Audie Joyce had seeped through the Dark Coil from Phaedra to Redemption. Maybe he did....remember, everything is a lie. The psyker, the "Teller", sure reminds me of someone seen in a previous work. There's no telling for sure.

What really excited me in this story was the physical descriptions of the Scorched Creed. For the older readers, remember back in the 80's when people loved attaching the descriptor "from Hell" at the end of anything inherently evil? Well, the Creed is literally a "Biker Gang From Hell". They are haphazard amalgamations of black plating, razorwire, sharp edges, anger, and fury, all astride demonic motorcycles.

When you go back, and think about the things that first excited you about Warhammer and 40K, it was the torchlight to unleash images like this from your imagination that probably first drew you in. And that's what makes this story so fresh, and makes it leave such an impression. When you give an author like Fehervari free reign to create, these are the types of memorable figures you are left with. After you read the climactic battle, go back and reread it, and truly study the choreography of it all. This is some of the best action out there.

And yet, it is not all action and badass characters in Cast a Hungry Shadow. All the other hallmarks of Fehervari's authorial craftsmanship are evident here as well: deep sadness, despair, harrowing regrets, and misguided determination. Perhaps the best element of Shadow is the inner turmoil of the betrayer, Sister Etelka. As she comes closer to the Teller, and to the climax of her own story arc, she is continuously assailed by the gravity of her past actions. It is a form of the Act of Penance, in which she must make her own personal reconciliation.

Dark, foreboding, and crackling with chaotic energy, Cast a Hungry Shadow offers rich characters, a stark setting, brutal action, and bar none the best vehicle chase scene that I've read in any 40K work. Plus, it is all fleshed out with Fehervari's intentional, intelligent prose.

What a great partner story.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Basically the Genestealer Cult icon with some nice detailing and rendering. Something about this design reminds me of the basilisks from the old NES version of Archon. Fits into the whole chess aspect of Genestealer Cults, too.

One on the left, there, and one on the right as well.

Cover Final Score:


Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tomes Of The Dead: Tide Of Souls

Tomes of the Dead: Tide of Souls by Simon Bestwick. Originally published by Abaddon books, January 2011. Approx. 320 pages.

Over the past few years, I've really been enjoying these Tomes of the Dead titles that were released in 2010-2011 by Abaddon Books. And, with each new one I read, I can appreciate more how they tried to present innovative takes on the zombie genre - they struck when the iron was hot, and didn't cause more gridlock with the same old, same old. These books posit new origin types for outbreaks of the undead, or utilize different historical periods as settings. In short, they were a breath of fresh air.

Tide of Souls kind of got shuffled to the back of the Tomes reading pile for some immature reasons; first, the cover isn't as catchy as some of the other excellent ones (very unfair of me), and two, I have no problem trying new authors, but sometimes I hesitate when reading first novels (again, unfair and uninformed). However, once I did pick this story up, I tore through it with all the enthusiasm of, well, of a zombie at a brain buffet (forgive me that bad joke, please). Tide of Souls is an excellent story, and not just an excellent zombie yarn, for two primary reasons: one, it has the richest characters of any of the Tomes stories that I have read so far, and two, the zombie depictions are great (although the green eyes can be kind of off-putting).

The set-up of Tide of Souls is simple, but horrifying. Succinctly put, the icecaps melt and the world floods. And from these new depths emerge the "nightmares"; innumerable armies of the walking dead. Shambling, persistent creatures in various stages of decomposition with one constant: the glowing, green eyes. That, and a shared malevolence.

The events, as we bear witness to them, unfold in England. We see them through the eyes of a trio of first-person narrators, three central participants whose fates will intertwine and interweave as the truths are uncovered. Be forewarned; even though I try to keep these reviews as spoiler-free as possible, just going over the outline of how the book is put together will unleash some reveals. Feel free to scroll down a bit is that's an issue.

Bestwick does a superb job in structuring these memoirs. The first is that of Katja, a young Polish woman who fell victim to the human trafficking epidemic in Britain. Katja is a strong, intelligent woman, and very capable; as the daughter of a special ops soldier, she possesses critical survival skills. These are the only things that kept her sane and alive during her time as a prostitute; an experience so harrowing that "rising of the dead was....a godsend."

It is important that we see the first events through Katja's eyes. Like her, at this point, we are confused, and helpless. She has to piece together what is going on, and how she is going to survive, especially since she finds herself looking out for a young, fellow prostitute named Marta. The duo has to beat a hasty egress from flooded Manchester, all the while avoiding the undead horrors. Along the way, they fall in with a widowed survivalist named Derek, who reinforces the idea that kindness and goodness are two separate entities.

Katja's tales culminates with them reaching an island (well, a former hilly town), which is currently occupied by a detachment of soldiers.

Here begins the story of Robert McTarn. McTarn is a former standout soldier who gets called up for a special mission in the midst of this most unnatural disaster. As with most situations of this magnitude, the high-ranking government officials have enacted their contingency plans, while the populace, well, drowns. McTarn is charged with coordinating the extraction of a high-value asset along with the RAF. This particular asset is a mentally damaged scientist named Stiles, who just might have some sort of inkling as to what caused this mess; and, hopefully, can concoct an idea of how to stop it.

McTarn's account takes over from where Katja's leaves off; where everything was new and frightening before, it all becomes about survival now. As the original mission becomes impossible to complete, McTarn must rally his few soliders and the local townsfolk to stave off the undead hordes while they try to get a solution out of Stiles.

Stiles. To a degree, he might be the most important man on the planet at this point. And also a complete mess. Physically and emotionally broken, perpetually drunk and strung out on painkillers. What few utterances he makes are incoherent babblings. Somehow, though, Katja is able to strike up a semblance of a rapport with him. Will this yield enough information before the survivors are overrun?

After the action reaches a dynamic climax, with a possibility of some kind of resolution in sight, the third and final (and shortest) account begins. This is Stiles' own account. It is here that we finally learn the beginning, and the end.

Every zombie outbreak needs a reason, or a cause. What online criticisms I have seen of Tide of Souls consider this to be the weak link in the story. I totally disagree, but again, no spoilers here. Bestwick puts forward a solid, original idea here.

Stiles' account might just be the most intriguing of all. Where Katja's juggled notions of fear, strength, and even hope, and McTarn's flew by with the practical, clipped statements of military jargon, Stiles' tale is almost poetic in its own way. Where we had only seen a disheveled shell of a man for the past 150 pages, we now get to see the man that was. Young Ben Stiles was a passionate diver, accomplished marine biologist, and consummate ladies man. This was all until a diving accident left him crippled, and unable to submerge again: a diver who fell from grace from the sea. Soul crushed, and soaking in alcohol and opiates, the visions soon began. Who would have known that those visions were actually portents of the horrors to come?

Let's look at the components of Tide of Souls bit by bit:

Characters: As mentioned, true winners here. If you look at the three narrators on paper, they almost look like stock characters; the beautiful young lady who can kill you with her bare hands, the efficient soldier with a past, and the mentally unhinged scientist. But I can't stress enough how well-rounded these characters are. Katja knows well that the time may come when her womanhood is the only currency that will get her by, no matter how tough or resourceful she is. McTarn realizes that no matter what he tries or believes, there is more of his abusive father in him than he can handle. In fact, inheriting his mother's kindness only benefits him in allowing him to appreciate and hate his darker side. And Stiles, for all his realized passions and achievements, is flawed, insecure, and afraid.

The secondary characters are fleshed out enough for them to be memorable. Some of the soldiers on McTarn's team stay as just names; he only really gives consideration to the ones that stand out in a meritous way.

Pacing/Overall Writing: Tide of Souls flows by at a nice pace. It never lags, and there is nothing superfluous. Bestwick does the first-person POV's well, letting them stand as three very distinct identities. There is a nice 28 Days/Weeks Later vibe going on here, and, even being a native of the States, I could envision the British setting well.

Action: Tons of it. And this isn't a case of all action, no story either. There are no arbitrary action scenes inserted simply to pass time. Also, Bestwick has done his homework (the extent of which is shown in part in the acknowledgements) regarding gunfights; untrained firearms wielders like Katja do not simply become overnight headshot machines.

Zombies: Even though it took me a bit to get used to the green eyes, I absolutely love Bestwick's take on zombies. He describes their various states of decomposition in ways that are truly horrifying. On top of this is the fact that these zombies are operating under the influence of some kind of leadership structure. Some of their attack patterns seem....calculated. And later, it's almost as if they adapt and learn from past mistakes. Normally they shamble, but occasionally they can launch into bursts of speed. And also, how is it that these creatures can stave off decomposition when they are constantly marinating in salt water? At first glance, this seems like their portrayal is somewhat inconsistent; however, when we learn more of the cause of their awakening, it all becomes clear.

Fear Factor: Pretty high, to be honest. It's that combination of the genuinely scary depictions of the zombies, coupled with the fact that you honestly do care about the characters. The initial attacks, at the beginning of Katja's account, are examples of some of the finest zombie fiction I have read. There are no "safe" victims either; we see children being attacked, and we see them shambling with the rest of the green-eyed monstrosities.

There you have it. Tide of Souls is an excellent zombie title, guaranteed to give you some Halloween chills. Kudos to Bestwich for this being his first published novel (he already had a number of short stories under his belt). Grab a used copy of the out of print paperback or buy an ebook from the Abaddon website.

Here's what it is:
One of the accolades on Tide of Souls credits Bestwick's "emotional integrity". I'd like to add "emotional intensity". Strong characters, scary zombies. Win-win.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Not bad, but not up to snuff with some of the other Tomes covers. The green eye effect is well done. The color palette fits the tone of the story as well. However, occupying the center area with something reflecting the rising water/sea motif of the book would have been a better choice than a huge building. Especially since most of the action happens on rooftops, boats, and hilly villages.

Cover Final Score: